Lessons from Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL)

I have periodically taught Second Language (ESL) throughout my career. I’ve taught in classrooms and tutored individual students, but I’m quite certain that the students teach me more than I could ever teach them.  They come from a variety of countries and life experiences, sharing information about their daily routines, political issues in their home countries, gender roles and cultural norms.  They are very inspiring and humble, and are typically very dedicated to learning the English language.

One of my most memorable students was the spouse of a non-immigrant expatriate on assignment. Angela is from Germany; she and her husband and their young daughter were relocated to Westchester County (NY) by his employer. Although she did not know anyone in this community, Angela went out every day and practiced what little English she knew at local shops and the library.  She quickly joined the local gym in an effort to meet people.  Her daughter went to school for several hours each day and rapidly picked up English without any formal lessons.  This little four year old girl walked into the classroom, as fearless as her mother, and absorbed her surroundings like a sponge.

I do not speak German, so Angela and I initially relied on non-verbal cues to communicate with one another early on. Something as simple as playing “Simon Says” with Angela and her daughter became a vocabulary lesson.  Sometimes during our lessons we would read letters and forms that were sent home by her daughter’s school. Many of these were simple reminders about holidays, school parties and activities.  However, there were  the occasional health letters that entered into our lesson.  Angela asked me to help her with a letter that served as a reminder not to send children to school if they were “vomiting or had diarrhea.”  One can only imagine how awkward it is to explain these two ailments to a non-native English speaker.  Needless to say, non-verbal communication was key!

As Angela’s English improved, I assigned a short book for her to read while at home.  Then, at each lesson, she would read aloud and we would discuss the plot.  It was a tricky challenge for her, as she was exploring new letter combinations that forced her to use her mouth and tongue in a different way than she would in German.  One of the biggest challenges for Angela was to master the “th” sound. For Germans, the tendency is for the tongue to reside inside the teeth when attempting this sound, forcing more of a “z” sound (e.g. “zis” vs “this”.) I reminded her to stick out her tongue, and she and I giggled often as she made a face to get this difficult sound from her mouth.

I taught Angela for nearly two years and I am humbled by how quickly she progressed. She went from being a woman who was afraid to answer her phone to one who can articulate her thoughts, feelings, wishes and desires with confidence. I was honored to contribute to her ability to navigate the waters of this new culture.

Teaching ESL has reminded of important life lessons when living abroad:

1.  Be Fearless:  The point of being abroad is to see and do something that you would not experience at home.  Staying in because you don’t know the language  is not an excuse to miss out on the adventure. Get out, get a bit lost and listen to your surroundings. Throw caution to the wind!  At the very least,  you’ll have a great story to tell later!

2. Shift the View: You’ll see the world through a new set of lenses and it is important to embrace this new view. When I lived in London, I remember observing all of the buildings so carefully, as the city was so much older than almost anything I had seen in the US. Every time I stepped out of my flat (apartment), I experienced visual overload. It was wonderful! When I did eventually return home, I was able to see the world through a new set of eyes, which made home a ‘new’ place too and helped tremendously with the re-entry shock.

3. Humor: Be open to making mistakes and be willing to laugh when you make them. Laughing at yourself in these situations is definitely more fun than crying and often a better coping technique.

If you are interested in learning more about Teaching English as a Second Language and the places it can take you, the 44th Annual TESOL Convention and Exhibit will take place in Boston, Massachusetts from March 24 – 27, 2010.